THE CHINESE EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES | Growing Up In The Chinese Cultural Revolution

To mark Chinese New Year, we wanted to share a short essay from author Ying Chang Compestine on the story behind her new picture book, The Chinese Emperor’s New Clothes (illustrated by David Roberts). The book even has a how-to guide in the back for creating your own Chinese New Year parade robes!

About The Chinese Emperor’s New Clothes:

Ming Da is only nine years old when he becomes the emperor of China. His ministers take advantage of the boy emperor by stealing rice, gold and precious stones. But Ming Da has a plan. He orders his tailors to make him “magical” new clothes that only honest people can see. Can Ming Da outsmart his ministers and save his country? 

The following note is extracted from the Author’s Note in The Chinese Emperor’s New Clothes by Ying Chang Compestine & David Roberts

Ying in China during the Cultural Revolution
Ying in China during the Cultural Revolution

In Ancient China, the emperor often appointed his favourite son to succeed him to the throne, regardless of age. When Pu Yi, the last emperor of China, came to power in 1908, he was less than three years old!

The Chinese use a lunar calendar based on the phases of the moon. Chinese New Year usually occurs between mid-January and early February. The most important part of the celebration is a parade, which is often led by officials, followed by dancing dragons, firecrackers, acrobatic performances, and lion dancers.

According to Chinese tradition, on New Year’s Day it is important that everyone dresses in new clothes. That way they can have a fresh start, and evil spirits won’t recognize them.

I grew up during the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). Like the street children in this story, we were deprived of food and clothes along with many other things. For example, Western fairy tales, folktales, and novels were banned and burned. But that didn’t stop my family and me from reading: My brothers and I read every work of literature that came into our hands, and my parents read banned medical journals.

Whenever I was lucky enough to get my hands on one of the forbidden books, I had to read it in a hurry, late at night, so I could pass it on to friends who were anxiously awaiting their turn. If caught, we could face public humiliation and even risked having our families sent to a labour camp. Despite the danger, the hunger for literature was so intense that we were willing to risk it. Like the boy emperor, I always searched for ways to outsmart the officials. I would hide the banned books between newspapers or wrap them in lotus leaves. My most daring trick was disguising the book with the jacket of a government propaganda book.

Due to the lack of books and other entertainment, my friends and I would pass the time by reciting stories from the illegal books we had read. On my eighth Chinese New Year’s Eve, a friend lent me a dog-eared translation of the forbidden The Emperor’s New Clothes by Hans Christian Andersen. I stayed up all night, reading it over and over. I traced my fingers over the beautiful illustrations. I laughed out loud at the naked emperor marching through town.

When it was my turn to recite a story, I added my own twist to The Emperor’s New Clothes, and rewarded myself and my friends with new clothes and food for the upcoming New Year. That experience eventually led to this retelling.

Follow Ying Chang Compestine over on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and her website.
David Roberts can be found on Instagram and Tumblr.

To find out more about the book, click here!